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Korczak, Janusz

(1878/79–1942), physician, educator, and writer. Janusz Korczak (originally Henryk Goldszmit) was born in Warsaw to a secular family strongly acculturated into Polish culture and imbued with a tradition of social activism. He was trained as a physician in Poland from 1898 to 1905, continuing his medical training until 1912 in Germany, France, and England.

After working for several years in Warsaw at the Berson-Bauman Jewish children’s hospital, Korczak became director of the Jewish Orphans’ Home, funded by members of Jewish bourgeois-intellectual society. He held this position from 1912 until 1942, and in addition was a founder in 1919 of the Child Rearing Institute—“Our House”—for Catholic children. This latter facility was supported by an organization that had come from the socialist and trade union milieux and later became allied with governing circles.

Both institutions embodied Korczak’s original conception of a self-governing children’s society with its own institutions—a parliament, court, newspaper, and a system of assigned duties or division of labor—that promoted law and order, active participation, and care of children by other children. Korczak encouraged independence and conducted painstakingly documented studies of the psycho-physical and social development of their wards (the clinicians’ own caretaking and childrearing activities were likewise subject to careful scrutiny).

The third “institution” established by Korczak was his children’s newspaper Mały Przegląd (The Little Review), which was issued from 1926 to 1939 as a weekly supplement to the General Zionist daily Nasz Przegląd (Our Review). This project was based upon the premise that “children [should] write for children” without the mediation of adults. Korczak also worked in radio (1935–1936, 1938–1939), giving talks under the name “Old Doctor.”

Korczak began his writing career in 1896, while he was still in secondary school; in addition to his main pseudonym, which became better known than his given name, he used a number of others throughout his career. His works—24 books and more than 1,400 additional texts—include writings for children and adults as well as autobiographical material. He wrote tales, recounted anecdotes, crafted poetic prose, and produced feuilletons, essays, pedagogical sketches, and radio stories. As a journalist Korczak explored social and pedagogical matters; in addition he was an author of medical articles, minor literary works, interviews, and other texts. Of his unedited papers (including pieces on literary and pedagogical topics, correspondence, and documents) only about 200 items survived World War II.

Korczak was a fighter for children’s rights and a researcher of the real world of childhood. He was a theorist and a pragmatist, as well as an artist with a unique style. His basic credo—“children shall not be, but rather already are, people”—found its fullest written expression in his pedagogical writings, his writings for children, and his private writings. His most significant pedagogical writings include the 1920 cycle Jak kochać dziecko (How to Love a Child); his book Prawo dziecka do szacunku (A Child’s Right to Respect; 1929), and a series of 19 articles published in the magazine Szkoła Specjalna (Special School) between 1924 and 1939. Most notable among his writings for children are his stories—above all Król Maciuś Pierwszy (King Maciuś the First) and Król Maciuś na wyspie bezludniej (King Maciuś on the Deserted Island), both published in 1923; and his socially conscious journalistic work for W słońcu (In the Sun; 1918–1919, 1926), as well as the work he did in connection with his own children’s weekly, Mały Przegląd.

Finally, Korczak’s “literature of the personal document”—for instance, his diaries of May–August 1942 and other World War II–era writings—also served as an important vehicle through which he elaborated his approach to children and childhood. Of 90 extant pieces belonging to this category, 65 came to light only in 1988. In addition to his prolific writing, Korczak was a member of many societies and institutions concerned with social welfare and education. As a popular lecturer he gave talks both to the general public and at seminars and university settings, both state-run and independent. He served also as an expert witness.

Korczak considered himself a member of two cultures and nations. As a Jew and a Pole, he was active in both communities and worked to bring them closer together. Tellingly, in the titles of his reports from a summer camp where he worked as an educator, he used symbolically popular Jewish names the first year (Moski, Joski i Srule; 1910) and equivalent Polish names (Józki, Jaśki i Franki; 1911) the second. A Freemason who in the 1930s dabbled in theosophical milieus, he did not associate his religious beliefs with any major faith.

In view of Europe’s growing economic and political crisis, marked by the advent of fascism, Korczak moved significantly closer to Zionist circles; the He-Ḥaluts and kibbutz movements interested him especially. He visited Palestine in 1934 and 1936 and planned further trips there. He had first made contact with Zionists in 1899, at their Third Congress in Basel; in the mid-1920s he supported the Jewish National Fund; and in 1929, officially as a non-Zionist, he was appointed to be a deputy member of the Polish section of the Jewish Agency.

In his youth, Korczak had associated with Warsaw’s democratic intelligentsia at a time when educational activism was intertwined with the Polish struggle for independence. He served as a doctor during the Russo-Japanese War and the Revolution of 1905–1906, World War I (1914–1918) and the Revolution of 1917, and the Polish–Soviet War of 1920. His stance of deep engagement survived even into World War II. Continuing as director of his orphanage (now with 200 children under his charge, double the prewar number), he also took responsibility for another orphanage—this one with 500 children—and planned to establish a hospice for street children.

Well known to the inhabitants of the Warsaw ghetto, Korczak did not hesitate to approach even collaborators to gain support for his projects, but he simultaneously maintained close contacts with civil resistance groups, working with Emanuel Ringelblum, Tsivia Lubetkin, and Yitsḥak Zuckerman, among others. He refused to leave the ghetto illegally as his Polish friends suggested. At the time of the Aktion—the main stage of the extermination of the ghetto’s Jews, during which the Germans cleared out all orphanages, among other institutions, and deported their residents—on the day of his deportation, he turned down an opportunity to escape and accompanied his charges to the Treblinka death camp.

Acknowledged and respected in Poland as an expert on children’s issues, and regarded as an individual of great moral authority, Korczak was attacked by extremists of various persuasions—predominantly Polish nationalists and antisemites (his radio broadcasts were suspended because of antisemitic pressures) but also Orthodox Jews. After his death, he became a symbol—a tireless custodian of children and a martyr of the Holocaust—a status that obscured the full complexity of his life.

During his life, only individual works of Korczak’s were translated, not only into Yiddish and Hebrew (languages he himself did not know), but also into English, Czech, German, Lithuanian, Russian, Slovak, and Esperanto. After World War II, his works were published in many editions, in numerous languages. At the same time, an international movement has developed, based around national associations, working toward the goal of popularizing Korczak’s life and work.

Suggested Reading

Friedhelm Beiner and Silvia Ungermann, eds., Janusz Korczak in Erinnerungen von Zeitzeugen (Gütersloh, Ger., 1999); Dialogue and Universalism 9–10 (1997): 3–234; 9–10 (2001): 17–248, special issues on Korczak; Janusz Korczak, Dzieła, 19 vols., ed. Hanna Kirchner, Aleksander Lewin, Stefan Wołoszyn, and Marta Ciesielska (Warsaw, 1992–[2008]); Janusz Korczak, Ghetto Diary (New Haven and London, 2003); Janusz Korczak, King Matt the First, trans. Richard Lourie (London, 2005); Betty Jean Lifton, The King of Children: The Life and Death of Janusz Korczak, 2nd ed. (New York, 1997); Akibah Ernst Simon, Pestalotsi ve-Korts´ak (Tel Aviv, 1948/49); Andrzej Wajda, dir., Korczak (Poland, Germany, and U.K., 1990), film, 115 mins., in Polish.



Translated from Polish by Anna Grojec